As you may have seen on my instagram, I’ve been experimenting with a whole new branch of yarncraft: natural dyeing! I planned to experiment with natural dying since the beginning of summer, but you know how it goes, and well I only got to it during my last week of summer break. Dying yarn is just one of those extra steps in the whole creation process that really adds to the connection to the life cycle of your clothes. There’s a lot to be said in favour of natural dying: it’s better for the environment, it has historical connections going back thousands of years and the challenges and restrictions posed by the materials make natural dying a wholly special art form. Well known yarns such as Shilasdair but also tons of indy-dyers use natural dyestuffs for their yarns.
When I mention historical precedents, I do mean historical. The whole image of the Bland Middle Ages is a myth, because people have been dying their clothing for millennia in all kinds of bright colours, using plants such as woad, madder and later indigo. Because of this, I’ve often bumped into natural dyers during re-enactment festivals and historical fairs. Such a fair is always a certain type of assault on the senses, with the roaring fires, the sounds of folk bands and fake battles, and the smells of mud, wood smoke, hot iron, charred meat, but you know you’ve arrived when the smell of wet sheep penetrates your nose, you turn a corner, and there it is, bubbling away in a cooking pot or hanging to dry on a ramshackle rack next to a Viking tent.
Now, on to my own experiment! Although many people like to grow their own dyestuffs, I’m very grateful for that modern equivalent of Roman roads, the internet, which allowed me to order my every need. First, I needed the canvas: an undyed yarn. The undyed shades of Istex can be a good starting point, but I bought three skeins specifically meant for dyeing. It’s a sport weight made of 100% Blue Faced Leicester. A skein weighs 100 grams and has 400 mtrs of 4ply superwash wool. I had two dyes to work with: madder and chamomile. Although I drink a lot of tea, it’s rarely chamomile so I had to buy a big bag of dried flowers for this dyepot, which is supposed to give off a yellow colour. The madder is supposed to give off a deep red colour, so I was very exited to get started!
I used The Modern Natural Dyer by Kirstine Vejar as my inspiration and my guide! First, I ‘pre-wetted’ all the skeins, which means I put them on top of a pan filled with water and let them soak up water until the skeins sink by themselves. Next I gently washed the yarn, a process called scouring. The yarn was put in a pan with water and a bit of dish washing liquid and kept at 82 degrees Celsius for about an hour. It was a real challenge to keep the pot at a constant temperature for such a long time, especially with an electric stove which just isn’t as flexible as a gas furnace. The same difficulty arose in each of the next steps, but there’s nothing to do but wing it, I guess!
The third step was mordanting, which is important to make sure the dye catches. I used alum, put it in water that had to be kept at 88 degrees.
I put in the still wet, scoured yarn and had to keep it at a steady temperature for an hour, all the while singing and cackling in my best impression of a Shakespearian witch over her boiling cauldron. A lot of people also add chalk at this point, because that also affects how well the dye catches. For me, this wasn’t a necessity, because where I live we get very ‘hard’ water, i.e. water that has a lot of chalk in it. Seriously, you wouldn’t believe how often I have to clean my tea kettle! The mordanted skeins can be left to dry or used immediately.
Next, I had to make the actual dye bath. For the chamomile I added chamomile to the water and let it simmer for about an hour. I strained the water and used it for my first skein. It had to be in the dye bath for another hour at just below boiling point. The whole house smelt of chamomile tea by then. I had wanted to make only one skein in this colour, as chamomile is said to produce a quite light but bright colour. However, as the first skein came out much darker and more deeply coloured than I expected, I added another skein to the same dye bath.
A week later I started on the madder. I let the madder soak in cold water overnight, and proceeded to let it simmer again, this time following a recipe with a strict instruction not to let the water go over 65 degrees. After straining, I added the third and last skein, which I had pre-wetted because it had been drying for a week. An hour later it could come out.
Now I had three skeins of handdyed yarn! They were a bit ruffled, but after a bit of re-skeining it looked sleek again. I’m really happy with the looks of the chamomile-dyed yarn. It’s so much deeper and fuller than I expected. In retrospect, the difference in colour between the first dye bath and the second dye bath is much smaller than I thought, and both skeins are very rich in colour.
Initially I had the idea to put the lighter of the two yellow skeins into the madder bath to create an orange skein, so I would have a gradient running yellow, orange and red. What took me away from this path however was not only my satisfaction with the yellow, but in all honesty, also disappointment with the madder. Instead of a deep, bright red it turned out a sort of reddish-pink coral colour. I’m not sure where it went ‘wrong’, it is still a pretty colour, and coral tones are my favourite kinds of pink but it’s not the colour I had hoped for. I have plenty of madder left so I’ll just have to give it another try and experiment with different quantities of dyestuff and/or yarn.
I liked trying my hand on a bit of yarn dying. It was fun to potter around with flowers, roots, wool and such. Natural dying is a very hands-on approach to working with wool and natural earthly materials. It added to my (already considerable) appreciation of natural yarn dyers, and indie-dyers in general! In the meantime I’ve been reading about different kinds of natural dye materials and am especially intrigued by dying with indigo (which is a totally different process from dying with other natural materials). I can see myself trying my hand at that in the future. I don’t suspect it will become as an obsession as my other crafts, mainly because what with uni, knitting, sewing and life in general I already have quite a bit going on. But I’m having fun, and that’s what counts, right?